Careful weeding

For a short period of time between “A Bored Seminarian” and “Draughting Theology,” this blog was called “Digging up my own Foundation.”  It was a nod, esoteric as it may have been, to my early understanding of the priesthood as one who empowers and encourages their congregation until they find themselves essentially out of a job.  When it was pointed out that the best way to shorten that too long title was “Dig up MoFo,” I decided to make a change, but truth be told, that ideal of what parish ministry looked like was a bit short-sighted anyway.  No matter how much encouraging and empowering one does, as an ordained clergyperson, there are still things that I can do that members of the congregation can’t.  The real difficulty of this vocation is learning what one should delegate and what one must do.  Or, to put it in the context of Sunday’s Gospel lesson, what can one safely dig up and hand off and what must remain in the ground.

torpedograss

Invasive Torpedo Grass is hard to pull up without damaging everything else

In reading my standard preaching resources, the consensus is that Jesus’ farming technique left a lot to be desired.  The weed planted by the evil one was likely darnel, a poisonous rye grass that until it comes to seed, is impossible to differentiate from good wheat.  By the time the slaves would have noticed the problem, the solution they suggest would have been easily done.  That is, the wheat and darnel would have both been pretty well close to harvest anyway, and the damage done in uprooting the weed wouldn’t been fairly insignificant compared to the cost of the darnel seed falling to the ground, germinating, and having another year of bad crop to deal with.  Yet, Jesus instructs the slaves to wait and let the harvesters deal with it.  He is worried that to damage even one good wheat stalk would be a cost too high.  Why is Jesus so careful in his weeding?

The answer comes right at the very beginning of the parable.  Jesus starts by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”  This is a kingdom parable, a story meant to teach a lesson about what it looks like under God’s reign.  God’s reign turns the upside-down world right-side up.  It makes the last first and the first last.  It heals the blind, frees the prisoner, and reaches out to touch the lepers.  God’s reign is a world in which every tear is dried up and the oil of gladness is poured out in abundance.  In the kingdom of the world, darnel doesn’t become wheat and dead men don’t come back to life, but with patience and faith, under the reign of God, both are possible.  When we see the world through the lens of this world, we are quick to grab weeds and toss them into the fire, but God’s view is long range, God’s goal is the restoration of all of Creation, God’s dream is a field full of wheat.  And so, the slaves are told to leave it to harvesters to deal with the good and the bad.  Who knows, by the time the harvest comes around, maybe the greatest miracle of all is that by the grace of God, darnel can become wheat.

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A Parable for the Church

Despite our ongoing fascination with it, Jesus didn’t talk much about the institution of the church.  In fact, the only reference to church in the Gospels comes in Matthew’s account.  In chapter 15, Jesus tells Peter he will be the rock upon which he will build his church.  In chapter 18, the word occurs several times as Jesus explains how to handle a fellow Christian, literally a brother, who sins against you.  In the Greek, it appears only three times (16:18, and twice in 18:17) while in the NRSV, the word occurs five times.  Still, it is worth noting that Matthew’s Gospel shows an affinity toward the church that would bloom out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It is helpful as we read other portions of Matthew’s Gospel to recall that it was written with the Church in mind.

Which brings me to the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  As parable season rolls on, Jesus channels his inner Joachim Jeremias by offering a doozy of an allegorical interpretation on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.  It is tempting to read this parable and think of the individual: how each of us has within our own hearts some good wheat mixed in with some uncontrolled weeds, but that isn’t what Jesus has in mind as he tells this parable.  Instead, as Jesus explains the parable, he has a much wider perspective.  He tells this story about a world in which there is good and there is evil.  As his explanation comes to a close, Jesus says that after the weeds – stumbling-blocks and doers of evil, are carried off to the unquenchable fire, what will be left is a pristine field of wheat that will “shine like the sun.”

lovely-green-roofed-church-in-wheat-fields-field-green-roof-plain-church-2560x1600-915x515

In his allegory, Jesus explains that this wheat that will be left over are the righteous, literally those who conform to the standard of God and are thereby in right relationship with the Father, which with Matthew’s heart for the Church in mind, led me into the Catechism of our Book of Common Prayer and the answer to the question on the top of page 855, “What is the mission of the Church?”  “The mission of the Church is to restores all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  That is to say, with apologies for mixing allegories, the reason the Church exists is to work the soil so that the wheat in our hearts chokes out the weeds.  The work of the Church is to help righteousness flourish in our hearts so that when the harvest times comes, there is a whole lot more wheat left shining like the sun than there is weeds burning in the furnace.

To be sure, the Church hasn’t always done a great job of this.  Often, weeds have been actively ignored, which in my flower beds means they grow wildly.  Sometimes, they are pulled up with haste, allowing their seeds to scatter and the roots to remain in tact, which only makes for more weeds a few weeks down the road.  Rarely, are the root causes of weeds addressed and the proper fertilization and watering for wheat utilized in order to facilitate abundant harvests.  All this to say, when I read this as a timely parable for the Church and a call to intentional discipleship training for an abundant harvest, I am quick to realize that we have a lot of work to do to facilitate healthy growth in restoring all people to unity, i.e. right relationship, with God.

The Glory to be Revealed

I can’t be sure, but I’d be willing to bet at least a couple of dollars that more than 80% of the funerals that I’ve been a part of in my seven years of ordained ministry have included a reading from Romans 8.  The assigned passage for Sunday doesn’t include all of the lesson suggested in the Burial Office, but it does capture the key line for preaching, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  On this day, as the 24 hour news agencies can’t keep up with the carnage between a Malaysian Airlines 777 being possibly shot down over the disputed region of the Ukraine and Israeli Defense Forces beginning a ground assault on the Gaza Strip, this word of hope that Paul offers the struggling Church in Rome seems so very far away.

On days like today, it is easy to make Romans 8:18 into a nice platitude, “Oh, don’t worry hunny, this ain’t nothing compared to the glory to be revealed.”  Heck, we can even turn it into a beach scene suitable for social media.

grumpy cat

 

But I think most of us agree that people who say that sort of crap should be punched square in the mouth.  Yes, it is true that joy and glory is a secure promise for those who are in Christ, but the reality is that suffering still happens on earth.  People still do terrible things to other people.  Sometimes nature is a force too strong to fathom.  Violence and war are still a part of even our most progressive cultures.  Weeds still grow alongside wheat.

Pointing to the glory that is to come is a nice thought, but what matters more in those moments of grief and pain is the presence of another human being, who’s #1 job is to just be.  Skip the platitudes.  Don’t share the pretty picture. Sit with those who are suffering and offer them a hug and a shoulder to cry on, and maybe silently say a prayer for the glory to come sooner rather than later.

O merciful Father, who has taught us in your holy Word that you do not willingly afflict or grieve your children: Look with pity upon the sorrows of those for whom our prayers are offered.  Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, comfort them with a sense of your goodness, lit up your countenance upon them, and given them peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

That Pesky “So What” Question Again

It seems clear that we have another descriptive rather than prescriptive parable on our hands.  Jesus doesn’t tell us to be wheat.  He expressly says that us human types don’t get to do the judging or the harvesting or the burning of the weeds.  No, we are merely wheat, or so we hope, growing for a season in the midst of a sabotaged field.  Is this really what the Kingdom of God is like?  Me just soaking up sunlight, rain, and nutrients all provided by a God who seems just a little bit of his rocker?

I’m not good at taking vacations.  The typical vacation lasts for 7 days.  I can sit and do nothing for approximately 2 hours.  Even 2 weeks of merely descriptive parables has me on edge.  So, the idea that the Kingdom of God is like me being on vacation for my entire life is enough to make me think it isn’t for me.  I need something to do, some task to accomplish, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that this week’s parable is actually a parable about last week’s parable.  This week we get the Parable of the Good Soil.

Seeds that fell on good soil, seeds which should produce at least a 30 fold yield have been sabotaged by the evil one.  He has come and turn what was good soil into a weed infested mess.  The cares and concerns of the world, the lure of wealth, illness and death, all of it grows right alongside each of us and attempts to choke the very faith out of us.  It would be easy to succumb to the pressure of the weeds roots below.  It’d be simple to allow their shadow to steal our light.  Getting choked out by the weeds wouldn’t be hard, and God knows it.  So he continues to provide nutrients, he continues to allow the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike, he continues to allow the sun to shine on both the wheat and the tares, and he encourages us to persevere.  To see beyond the current hardships.  To stand tall above the weeds.  To fight for nourishment when others would starve us of God’s grace.  We are called to be the best damn wheat we can be, even and especially in a field full of pesky weeds.

Yes, this parable is descriptive.  Yes, we are really just called to be wheat.  Yes, this drives me crazy, so yes, I’m going to do my best to be as wheaty as possible when the harvest comes.

Do I know any weeds?

The Parable of Wheat and Tares is a difficult parable for lots of reasons.  As I noted yesterday, there is the whole issue of eschatology to deal with.  My friend Evan spent today’s post pondering the existence of hell, which got me thinking about that which ends up in the furnace, the weeds.  This parable is a Presbyterian’s dream because it seems to indicate that we are predestined toward a final destination: God’s granary or the unquenchable fire.

Yet even that raises questions.  As the parable goes, God’s sowers do the good work of planting good seed.  This is, we can assume, those who, as our Romans lesson suggested last week, live in the Spirit.  The wheat are those who live in the Kingdom of Heaven, who seek after the good and perfect will of Father, who seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.  The wheat, quite simply, are the good guys.  The weeds, on the other hand, are not planted by God.  They are the work of the evil one, the deceiver, Satan, who comes under the cover of darkness and spreads bad seed on God’s field.  The weeds, Jesus tells us are children of the evil one: those who seek not after the will of God, but after their own selfish desires; those who tear down rather than build up; those who ignore the plight of the widow and orphan.  The weeds are the bad guys.  On a runoff election day in South Alabama, the imagination begins to swirl with images of a holy label gun being used to brand candidates as weeds or wheat.

Here’s where the parable and systematic theology break down.  What does it say about God that he allows the devil to come behind and sow bad seed?  How does God allow Satan to ruin his good creation?  This parable sets forth a God who is, at best, only as strong as and yet more foolish than Satan himself.  This is not the God of all creation that we espouse in the Creeds.  How is it possible that there are weeds running around among us good wheat?   And how can we tell the difference?  Do I know any weeds?  Am I a weed?  I think we have successfully broken this metaphor, which is the primary indicator of getting the parable wrong.

This parable, like last week’s story of the Sower, isn’t about us.  It is about God and his kingdom.  It is about the one who loves us enough to let of muck things up, loves us enough to find us where we are, and loves us enough to not let us stay that way.  It isn’t a systematic theology, but a story that invites us to ponder God’s larger plan for creation and his vision for the age to come.  It isn’t an easy parable, that is certain, but it is full of good grain that invites us to think  about and pray for the Kingdom of God.

Eschatology and Parables – Oh My!

As I tried to make clear last week, I love parables because they aren’t easy to understand.  This presumes that I enjoy working at difficult theology, which I do, but everyone has their limit.  So it is when the lectionary invites us to handle the Parable of Wheat and Tares.  For the second straight week, we are given a juicy parable by Jesus.  This one even starts with a variant of my favorite opening line, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

If all we had was the parable itself, this would be an interesting enough exercise.  What does it mean that in his description of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus includes a) the enemy and b) the enemy’s fruit?  How does Jesus’ acknowledgement of the presence of evil help us to understand the world around us better?  How does it open up our imaginations around the Kingdom of God?  What does it say that the farmer allows the tares (weeds) to grow alongside the good wheat throughout the growing season?  These are just a few of the several difficult questions that are brought up in this week’s parable.

But the lesson doesn’t end there.  For the second straight week, we are also given an allegorical interpretation from the lips of Jesus himself.  As I said in my sermon yesterday, I don’t particularly like allegories because I think they make the parables too easy to understand.  This is not the case this week, however.  This week, Jesus raises the bar by including in his allegory “the harvest is the end the age.”  So not only do we have the depth of the parable to deal with, but we also have eschatology or in more common parlance, the End Times.  Matthew’s Gospel has a strong eschatological bend to it.  He spends most of chapters 24 and 25 expanding on Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  Given the first century context and the notion that Jesus was coming back “before some in this generation fell asleep,” it makes sense that the Gospel writers would deal with the end of the age, but now 2,000 years later, when eschatology is mostly the purview of a few quack authors who enjoy clothesline theology, the average Mainline preacher will be well advised and probably hard pressed to carefully handle the eschatology in Jesus’ interpretation of the Parable of Wheat and Tares.

The truth of the matter is, I don’t feel equipped to deal with the eschatology in this parable adequately.  I’m not preaching this week, so I probably won’t take the time to do the research, but I will pray for those who are preaching this Sunday.  It is a daunting task.  If you are preaching this week, I’d love to hear how you handle to deal with this parable and its inherent eschatology.  And if you have a go to resource, be sure to link to in in the comments.